The Islamic Trade in European Slaves

The Islamic Trade in European Slaves, by Emmet Scott.

It is common knowledge that, for over a thousand years, Arab and Muslim slavers took enormous numbers of men, women and children from sub-Saharan Africa. What is not so well known is that they took equally large numbers of people from Europe. As with Africa, Arab slave-taking in Europe began in the seventh century – shortly after the rise of Islam – and continued virtually without interruption into the modern epoch. …

These early slave raids had an immense impact upon European civilization and … turned the entire Mediterranean into a war zone, broke the unity of the eastern and western branches of Roman civilization and Christendom in general, and essentially gave birth to the medieval world. With the Christian counter-attack, which commenced in the eleventh century with the Reconquitsa in Spain and the Crusades, Muslim slave-raiding abated somewhat, though it never actually ended. But following the emergence in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries of the Ottoman Turkish Empire, Islam was once again on the offensive; and with this renewed aggression came a vast expansion of the slave-trade. …

Ottoman armies engaged in annual assaults upon Christian territories. As the Turkish armies moved ever northwards and westwards they captured and enslaved great numbers of Europeans, the vast majority of whom were sold in Constantinople and Anatolia. Raiding Christian territories was incessant and we hear that, “The primary aim of the [Ottoman] raiders was the acquisition of booty. The most important booty was humans who could be sold at the slave markets for a high price. After a successful attack thousands of prisoners of war were driven to the Ottoman markets. … No one was safe in the endangered areas – nobles and serfs could equally become slaves.” …

As in other parts of the world, the Muslim slavers preferred young women and boys and these offered the highest price in the Turkish heartlands. Most of the boys were castrated and served as eunuchs, whilst the girls and women were destined for the harems of the Ottoman nobility. …

A vast swathe of eastern Europe incorporating all of modern Ukraine and stretching into Russia proper almost as far as Moscow and the Lithuanian/Polish border … from the middle of the fourteenth centuries these territories were raided incessantly by Islamicized Tartars from the Crimea (the Khanate of Crimea) and from present-day Kazakhstan and eastern Russia (the Nogai Horde). The worst of the raiding in Russia occurred from 1441 onwards when the Crimea, or Crimean Khanate (a kingdom much larger than the Crimean Peninsula), became independent.

According to historian Alan Fisher, up to three million Slavic peasants were enslaved by Tartar raiders operating from the Crimea between 1441 and 1774, when the Russians conquered the territory. Almost all of these were sold into the Ottoman Empire as eunuchs, harem women and galley slaves. These raids, virtually unknown among Westerners, are recognized by historians as playing an enormous role in retarding Russia’s economic and cultural development. They prevented the settlement and peopling of the Ukrainian steppe lands, a vast area which eventually was to become the breadbasket of Russia.

It was to counter this incessant predation that the Cossacks, mounted peasant warriors, were originally formed; and indeed the Cossacks formed the vanguard of the resistance to the raiders over three centuries. …

The third theatre of Ottoman slave-raiding against Europe was the Mediterranean and Atlantic coasts of the continent. Muslim pirates had of course raided southern Europe continuously from bases in North Africa from the seventh century, but things took a turn for the worse in the sixteenth century when the whole of North Africa came under the suzerainty of the Ottoman Empire, either as directly administered provinces or as autonomous dependencies.

Spurred by the demand for white-skinned slaves further to the east, North African pirates intensified their activities, capturing thousands of ships and rendering, within a few decades, long stretches of coast in Spain and Italy almost completely uninhabited. From the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries, it is estimated that the Barbary pirates captured and enslaved anything between 800,000 and 1.25 million Europeans. Their predation extended throughout the Mediterranean and even, on one occasion at least, as far as South America. They also on occasion raided far into the North Atlantic, taking slaves from the coasts of France, the Netherlands, Britain, Ireland, and even Iceland. …

There was a little improvement towards the end of the seventeenth century, when European navies commenced regular patrols of the western Mediterranean and launched retaliatory raids against the pirates’ strongholds in North Africa. …

At the height of their activities the Barbary States were so powerful that nations including the United States of America paid tribute in order to stave off their attacks. …

The Christians of the islands, in particular – Sicily, Sardinia, Corsica and the Balearics – had to live with the perennial threat of surprise attack, and there can be no doubt that such conditions left an indelible impression. The paranoid culture of feuding, assassination and vendetta, for which Sicily and Corsica, in particular, were to become famous, has to be viewed in light of the persistent violence inflicted upon these lands by Muslim corsairs.

How many, compared to the African slave trade to the Americas that we hear so much about?

What then of the total number of Europeans enslaved by the Ottoman Turks and their allies between the fifteenth and nineteenth century? By mainstream estimates around 1 million were taken by the Barbary pirates; around 3 million by the Crimean Tartars from Russia/Ukraine; about 1 million by the Tartars and Turks from the Caucasus, and about 10 million (by the most conservative estimate) by the Ottomans themselves from central Europe and the Balkans. This gives a grand total of 15 million – far more than European slave-traders took from Africa in the same period. …

The latter generally worked on plantations and were permitted, and even encouraged, to marry and have families. By contrast, the Europeans in the Dar al-Islam suffered a terrible fate. Able-bodied men were generally branded and put to endless back-breaking labour, either as galley-slaves or as miners. They were not permitted to marry and were denied all semblance of family life or female companionship. Young boys were invariably castrated – and raped – whilst women were consigned to the sex-slavery of the harem.

The great humanitarian impulse to end slavery, from the late eighteenth century onwards, came entirely from the Christian West, and by the mid-nineteenth century it was stamped out completely in most Christian lands. That slavery no longer exists (officially at least) in the majority of Muslim territories is due entirely to the efforts of Westerners, and in fact Muslim societies vigorously resisted all attempts by Europeans to stamp out the slave trade in Africa during the nineteenth and early twentieth century.

hat-tip Stephen Neil